The ‘Other’ Churchill

By on February 2, 2005

No, I’m not referring to Winston but to the most famous Churchill since the legendary and heroic British prime minister passed into history — Professor Ward Churchill. After making numerous outrageous comments about the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Professor Churchill has resigned from his position as the Chair of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Department of Ethnic Studies. Yesterday, we learned that Hamilton College in New York has now cancelled a planned speech by Professor Churchill, citing numerous “death threats.” There are several aspects of this case that merit comment.

First, Professor Churchill’s speech was constitutionally protected. Although state university professors, as public employees, have fewer free speech rights than students (see page 110 of FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus), it is absolutely clear that the professor was speaking about a matter of “public concern,” and the First Amendment therefore protects his speech. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that Professor Churchill is the only Colorado professor to address the September 11 attack, and any attempt to censor Professor Churchill — and not other professors who have spoken about September 11 but have expressed different, more palatable (i.e., less deranged) ideas — would be impermissible viewpoint discrimination. FIRE is not certain what Colorado’s Board of Regents will be discussing in their “emergency meeting” Thursday, but they should not be considering censoring or punishing Professor Churchill. They can certainly criticize his comments and counter his speech with speech of their own, but they should not and must not punish him.

MOB RULE. The second interesting and distressing aspect to this case is Hamilton College’s decision to cancel Professor Churchill’s speech because of unspecified “death threats.” While I do not doubt that Professor Churchill has been threatened, the individuals at Hamilton College obviously thought that his ideas were worth hearing (I have no idea why they would think such a thing, but the invitation was not my decision). Caving in to public pressure now strikes me as cowardice and sets a dangerous precedent. Enemies of free speech now know that they merely have to issue vague and unspecified threats to suppress speech that they don’t like. The proper response by the college is to heighten security and hold the event. If conservatives applaud Hamilton’s decision to cancel his speech, then they should think again. At FIRE, we know that conservatives are most likely to have their speech threatened by the campus mob, and any decision that empowers that mob will endanger conservative speech more than any other.

DOUBLE STANDARDS. Finally, we cannot allow Colorado and Hamilton to act like First Amendment martyrs. After Professor Churchill’s comments were first brought to light, both colleges immediately declared their undying allegiance to the First Amendment and stood firm (for about 48 hours) in the face of criticism. How hypocritical. In early 2004, Colorado censored a student protest against affirmative action and then — when the watered-down protest was finally permitted — allowed a mob to tear down the conservative students’ signs and actually push and shove the Republican protestors. Where was Colorado’s love for the First Amendment last January? Hamilton is even more hypocritical. This college, as you may recall, was already famous for its decision last fall to hire a terrorist. It has rung in the New Year with its decision to invite a terrorist-supporter to speak (and pay him an honorarium). In both cases, the school defended itself with self-righteous proclamations regarding its commitment to free speech. There’s one problem: the college has a rather draconian speech code.

That’s right. Hamilton College, heroic defender of free speech, has a speech code. Interestingly, if Professor Churchill gave a speech condemning the World Trade Center victims as “little Eichmanns,” he would not be violating the code because his attack on the firefighters, police officers, waiters, stock traders, janitors, accountants, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons who died that day had nothing to do with their “race, color, religion, ethnic origin, sex, sexual and affectional orientation or associations, or mental or physical disabilities.” In other words, had Churchill attacked African-Americans, gays, Serbs, women (or men), or Christians, he could have been punished, but the civilian casualties of September 11 were fair game. Such is the absurdity of the speech code.

Hamilton and Colorado’s initial defense of the professor raises an interesting question. Why defend his free speech but not that of the College Republicans? Why defend his free speech while imposing a speech code? Is it because the colleges perhaps sympathize with his point of view? There is one way to avoid such questions: protect everyone’s free speech and let the marketplace of ideas sort the good speech from the bad.

Schools: Hamilton College University of Colorado at Boulder